The image of the passion of Jesus has become so common among us that we can pass by it, hear about it, talk about it with no feeling. You can literally sit down, as I did yesterday morning, and read through St. Matthew’s passion without shedding a tear, without any deep feelings of emotion, of guilt or of joy or of gratefulness. We can just pass by the crucifix, a gruesome picture: look at it, it’s a man suffering and dying, and our children are looking at it. The news networks wouldn’t show the end of the video where the cops shot down that mass-murderer, because it was deemed too gruesome, too shocking, but we have on our altar and everywhere around us this far more gruesome picture. As our Sunday school teachers can tell you, Christian publishing companies have recognized this. They don’t want to show children the crucifixion anymore; they think it’s too much for them. But we show it, it’s what they’ll see in Sunday School today, and we teach it, as we should. But because we do it so often and it is always before us, we can as they say nowadays become desensitized to the horror of it. And more than this, not just to the horror of it, because any man being tortured on a Roman cross is horrible, but the meaning of it, that my sins put God on that cross, so wicked am I, so horrible is the sin that still rises in me, so hot does God’s anger burn against my sin; and more than this, the meaning of it, why we call that day Good, that your God went to that cross with a love for you that no exertion of your mind or your soul will ever be able to comprehend in its fullness.
The answer to our lack of sensibility, our ability to pass by the cross and the passion of Jesus without feeling, is not to lessen our exposure to it. The thought of so many that something becomes more meaningful, more special if we do it as seldom as possible – that’s silly. I’ve heard people say this about the Lord’s Supper – it’s not special if we have it every week. Please don’t ever say that or think that. The body and blood of the God-Man is always special. It is not it and not the “do it often” of Jesus that have to change, but our sensibilities. Our mindset. I would never say that a hug from my little Anna was not special or meaningful today because I got one last week. If a father begins to feel that way it is not the frequency of the hugs that needs to change but the attitude of the father – obviously. So the privilege of remembering the suffering and death of our Savior does not need to lessen in frequency. If anything it needs to increase among us, at our homes, in our devotions daily. But with it we need the increase of our sensibility – what am I remembering, what am I looking at, why is Jesus crucified for me my life, my hope’s foundation, and my glory and salvation?
We are going to talk about this in three parts. The first is how much God wants us to see the passion of Jesus. The second is how we should see in this passion of Jesus our sin, our corruption, our guilt, our death, our just deserts in hell, because he was there because of your sin and my sin. Third, how we should revel in the love of God shown here. There is a bumper sticker that has a palm tree and a beach and says, “No bad days.” I want a bumper sticker that has Jesus bleeding and dying on a cross and says, “No bad days.” Because everything could go wrong and one honest and sincere remembrance of that cross will be enough to make you realize how greatly God must love you, that this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.
There is simply nothing, nothing in God’s Word, that is stressed more than the suffering of Jesus. From the very beginning of the Bible to the end, there is bloody sacrifice. God slaughters an animal and covers the first sinners, Adam and Eve, with their skin. Abel slaughters the lamb as a sacrifice because God told him to. The first thing Noah does when he gets off the ark is to slaughter an animal and sacrifice it. The great exodus of Israel from Egypt is attended by the slaughter of lambs and the spreading of the blood on their doors. The Tabernacle, the Temple, had not weekly, but daily required sacrifices. If you had a baby, you sacrificed an animal. If you committed an outward sin, you sacrificed an animal. And every single one of them was a picture, a constant preaching of what God promised to do in giving His Son into suffering for the sins of mankind. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, Isaiah prophesies. He was crushed for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon Him and by His stripes we are healed. That’s what those sacrifices pictured and preached.
The clearest picturing of this suffering for sin came on the Day of Atonement. Every year the Israelites would take two he goats. One they would slaughter for the sins of the people. On the other the priest would lay his hands and he would pronounce the sins of all the people over it and then drive it into the wilderness to carry the sins away. The preaching of Christ here is as beautiful as it is in your face – on him will be the sins of the people, and he will be driven out of the city to suffer, and he will be slaughtered for their sins.
And beautifully, because God is the author of all history, you see these sacrifices even in the pagans. It wasn’t just Shem, the father of the Semites, the Israelites, who learned to sacrifice from his father. Japheth did too, Ham did too, the other sons of Noah. The reason you saw animal sacrifice everywhere in the ancient world, is because while they forgot about the true God and the promise of the Savior, they did not forget the actual ritual of sacrificing or the idea that it had something to do with taking sin away. The ancient world was a bloody place. From China to sub-Sahara Africa, from Norway to South America, they all sacrificed animals to appease their false gods. The history of the world up to the time of Jesus’ passion is a history of sacrifice.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ suffering is His obsession. He preached about it privately and publicly and constantly. He instituted the Lord’s Supper for the specific purpose of reminding us of His passion – do this in remembrance of Me. After He rises from the dead, He speaks about what? His passion – it was necessary that the Christ suffer these things and so enter into His glory. Look at my hands and my side, stick your fingers in, Thomas. He tells His apostles to preach this passion. Paul goes so far to say, I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In heaven is the Lamb still with His wounds. God could not stress it any more, there is simply nothing that matters more, it is the whole point of the Bible, the fulfilment of all history, the obsession of God and so of His children.
So the meditation on this suffering cannot be cursory – as if just remembering it, the mere hearing of it, fulfills some religious duty. And it cannot be feigned, hypocritical, lip service or ear service, without any real reflection on that suffering and dead man. We are God’s children. That is our God and our Brother who died on that cross. And He died because our sins are that bad and our God’s love for us is that intense.
So, look at this passion and see first what it means that you are a sinner – ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great, here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate, mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load, tis the Christ, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God. It is so easy to belittle our sin, to trivialize it. Everything around us tells us to. Sin? What is that? The very concept of sin is disappearing from popular imagination, as people are told to be proud of abortion, proud of sexual sin, and the root of all kinds of evil, the love of money, is the foundation of our government and educational systems. Sin is rebellion against God. And here you see the seriousness of it, of your sin. You see Jesus groaning in the Garden because He bears your guilt and it seems too much even for Him, You see Him praying that the cup of God’s wrath be taken away, if there is any other way, but no, there is no other way, God must die, the Son must bear not simply bodily pain, but the wrath of His Father, so that He cries out in anguish and horror, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” And that is the price of your sin.
The picture of God, especially of the Father, is usually some serious but kindly old man. I suppose that can preach something about God’s wisdom but it fails to show Him not just as serious, not simply as stern, but as wrathful. A better picture, the biblical picture, would be to show Him as a consuming fire, or however else you would picture fierce anger that burns against sin. Think of the horror you would feel if you stood before a judge, guilty of some crime, and he sentenced you to death, and you heard that judgment, death, on you, as the court marshals locked handcuffs on you and started leading you away, what despair would you feel, what anguish and horror would seize you. For a man’s judgment. Of temporal death. God’s judgment is real. It is spoken in His law. It is spoken against you. It is so severe a judgment that no human words can express it; it is total wrath against you, pure and righteous condemnation, with no room for your excuses, a burning fire that consumes sinners. I don’t know all the sins that haunt you individually. But don’t live your life with no reflection. Don’t act like there is nothing so bad in you. That is to be godless. And it is so obviously false on a moment’s reflection. You stand under impending death, you bear the corruption of sin in your own body, and the passion of your Lord should make you look into your heart and your soul to see what you have deserved.
Then look at Jesus’ passion and see pure love. God is love. If you could picture love itself you would be picturing God. This is why God forbade any likeness to be made of Him in the Old Testament – how can you picture Him? How can you picture Love itself? What does it look like? This is what the New Testament answers. It tells you what Love looks like. It looks like Jesus. It looks like Jesus’ passion. There is Love. There is God. God so loved the world. Whatever nastiness you have discovered in your life, in your soul, whatever despair you have felt at death or at punishment from this righteous God, see here Jesus take it all off of you and place it on Himself. See Him suffer while innocent because He couldn’t bear to see you suffer while guilty. See Him taking on your filth to win you pure innocence. See Him bear God’s anger to win you pure peace. See that He does it because He has something to gain by it, and that is you, sinful you, you who are the object of His anger, and yet here He loves you and wants you with Him, reconciled to Him, cleansed and holy, and He will bear hell itself to make it happen. See His love remove all sin and set you before His Father righteous; see His passion, where the Father forsakes His Son so that the Son can make you worthy to be called and to be sons of His Father.
Hear the invitation that reminds you constantly of His love, Take eat, this is my body given for you, drink of it all of you, this is the new testament in my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This never grows old, never ceases to be what you desperately need and love. As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirst for God, the living God. When shall I come and appear before Him? See He comes to you, no longer lowly and riding on a donkey, but exalted to the right hand of God and given the name that is above every name, the name at which we bend the knee, not in terror, but in awe and reverent fear and love for love so great as this, as Jesus, as Jesus’ passion. We sing our Hosannas to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has redeemed us by His cross and bids us now do this in remembrance of Him. Amen.